Gustave Courbet (French, 1819-1877)
GUSTAVE COURBET (French, 1819-1877)

Les cribleuses de blé, esquisse

GUSTAVE COURBET (French, 1819-1877)
Les cribleuses de blé, esquisse
oil on board on canvas
14 5/8 x 20 ¾ in. (37.2 x 52.7 cm.)
Painted circa 1855.
The artist.
Anonymous sale; Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 27 June 1855, lot 19, as Les Cribleuses de blé, possibly consigned directly by the above.
Private collection.
(possibly) F. Haskell, 'Un monument et ses mystères. L'art français et l'opinion anglaise dans la première moitié du XIXe siècle,' Revue de l'art, 1975, no. 30, p. 76, note 48.
H. Toussaint, Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), exh. cat., Paris, 1977, p. 135.
H. Toussaint, Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), exh. cat., London, 1978, p. 120.
Le Havre, Exposition Municipale, 1858, no. 127, as Jeune fille épilant du blé - Esquisse du tableau des Cribleuses.
(possibly) London, The French Gallery, 1859, no. 40, as Sorting the Corn.
Ornans, Musée Départemental Gustave Courbet, L'apologie de la nature...ou l'exemple de Courbet, 2 June-21 October 2007, p. 153, illustrated.

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Laura H. Mathis
Laura H. Mathis VP, Specialist, Head of Sale

Lot Essay

Please note that this work has been requested for the exhibition Ceux de la Terre. La figure du paysan dans l'art, de Courbet à Van Gogh organized by the Musée Gustave Courbet, to take place from 27 June-16 October 2022.
It has generally been assumed that Gustave Courbet did not follow the traditional Academic sequence of working out the various stages of ideas that lead to his final paintings. Very few preliminary drawings for completed works exist, and no other oil sketches have been identified that can be directly linked to his known compositions. It has generally been believed that he simply never did them and like the composer Mozart, his compositions were translated in finished form directly onto the canvas. The documented history of the present work may serve to explain its singular existence, although it does not completely explain the artist’s purpose in making this esquisse.
Courbet painted The Corn Sifters (Les cribleuses de blé) (fig. 1) for the 1855 Paris Exposition universelle, where it appeared side by side with ten other works by the artist. This was the same year that the artist installed a separate exhibition of forty paintings in a near-by building, The Pavillion of Realism, built on the avenue Montaigne. Both exhibitions took place over the summer months of 1855. During the time these two exhibitions were on view in Paris, a very interesting and somewhat unique auction took place at the Hôtel Drouot on June 27th, 1855. Entitled Terminées de Tableaux de lExposition des Beaux-Arts, the sale comprised 90 lots by 64 different artists, among them Doré, Diaz de la Pena, Harpignies, Jongkind, Troyon, Toulmouche, Picou, and as lots 18 and 19, two esquisses by Courbet, Les casseurs de Pierre and Les cribleuses de blé. The theme of the auction was to bring together the oil sketches corresponding to the paintings on view at the Exposition universelle. The motivation for this auction and the selection of artists represented therein is not clear, but it certified the fact that Courbet did indeed do oil sketches. It is not clear if these two sketches are unique in his oeuvre, but it does beg the question. Was Courbet asked to submit two esquisses specifically for this auction, and if this was not his normal practice, did he have to paint them? It could be assumed that the organizers of the auction would just assume that all the artist would have esquisses for the final compositions in their studios, and if this was not the case with Courbet, did he initially agree to be included in the auction and paint the studies after the originals. Certainly, Courbet’s well-documented interest in self promotion (and interest in selling his paintings) would support either possibility.
The next record of an esquisse for The Corn Sifters appears in an exhibition in Le Havre in 1858 where it is listed under Courbet’s name: no. 127 – Jeune fille epilant du blé esquisse des Cribleuses. While this 1858 exhibition is cited in the catalogues of the 1977 Courbet retrospective (Paris, p. 135 and London, p. 120), at that time the authors did not have any knowledge of the existence of a sketch. In addition, Francis Haskell in his 1975 article devoted to the subject of English taste for French art (Haskell, p. 76) mentions that Courbet’s Cribleuses de blé was included in an 1859 exhibition at the French Gallery in London. Haskell correctly understands that this reference refers to The Corn Sifters or a variant of it. Sarah Faunce believed that the French Gallery exhibition more probably included the esquisse and not the final version of the painting, as has been previously assumed. Courbet is known to have loaned the large painting to Brussels in 1857 and to Besançon in 1860, which were two comprehensive and important exhibitions. It is more likely, according to Faunce, that although we cannot document the results of the 1855 Drouot sale of Esquisses Terminées, that the esquisse passed into private hands and was subsequently exhibited in Le Havre in 1858 and at the French Gallery in London in 1859.
The present work is painted on cardboard, an unusual support for Courbet. However, Bruno Mottin, in his essay in the catalogue for the Courbet retrospective comments that out of all the Courbets he evaluated in French collections, only one in on cardboard: Portrait of Madame Andler in Morlaix (RF 168) (B. Mottin, ‘A Complex Genesis: Courbet in the Laboratory’, Gustave Courbet, exh. cat., Paris and New York, 2007, p. 71). Interestingly, Madame Andler dates to 1855, the same year as the present esquisse and the dimensions are almost the same.
In a letter to Champfleury in late 1854, Courbet refers to Les cribleuses de blé as ‘a painting of country life…It belongs to a series of The Young Ladies from the Village, also a strange painting’ (P. ten-Doesschate Chu, ed. Letters of Gusave Courbet, Chicago, 1992, p. 133, letter 54-8). The setting for The Corn Sifters is a bluterie, or bolting room in Ornans. It has previously been assumed that Courbet’s two sisters, Zoé and Juliette, and his illegitimate son, Désiré Binet, posed for the painting (Gustave Courbet, exh. cat., 1977, p. 134). When compared to the final version of The Corn Sifters (fig. 1), the esquisse conveys all of the characteristics associated with the development of what might be called the last step leading to the finished product. In the esquisse, Courbet has decided on the composition and placement of the figures. Color choices have also been determined and what Courbet still has yet to define in the finished oil are the specific gestures and attitudes of his figures. The most noticeable differences are in the figures flanking the woman sifting. While they each appear in both the sketch and the finished painting, Courbet has refined their expressins and actions in the final work; the seated woman falls asleep in the Nantes painting, and young boy becomes much more inquisitive as he peeks into a tarare, for device for cleaning grain. What remains the same in the two works are the smallest of details such as the delicacy with thich the seated woman picks up one kernel of grain with her fingers; this subtle gesture is pressed identically in the finished painting. But the most remarkable of all is that the monumentality and strength of the woman sifting is as powerful in the small esquisse as it is in the finished oil: knees pressed to the floor, strong, exaggerated outstretched arms sifting the grain, and one straight line from her left hand to her neck revealing no profle or facial features but perfectly defining her expression.
The late Sarah Faunce confirmed the authenticity of this picture after examining it in person in August of 2008, and provided assistance in researching the history of the esquisse.

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